When Usain Bolt was asked in Rio why his tiny Jamaica is such an athletics powerhouse, his answer was simple: the island’s unique sporting culture. The key, the greatest sprinter in history said, was Jamaica’s annual school sports competition, ‘Champs’, which puts kids into a hardcore competitive limelight early on, playing to packed stadiums and on TV. “It is just that we have a good system,” argued Bolt. “Boys and girls Champs keep producing more athletes. For years to come we will have the great athletes to win.” So central is schooling for Bolt that he once even attributed his old dominance over fellow countryman Asafa Powell to the fact that Powell’s school did not always qualify for Champs!
His analysis should put the national hand-wringing that preceded the heartwarming heroics of P V Sindhu and Sakshi Malik into perspective. “Sindhustan” or the “land of Malik and honey” we may now be, as the headline writers gushed in relief, but the roots of our four-yearly national obsession over why a billion-plus India doesn’t win medals lie in the fact that we just don’t have a decent sporting culture or a grassroots pipeline to catch young talent in Olympic sports. The six-medal haul in London 2012 lulled us into thinking we were racing towards sporting powerdom, with official predictions of at least 10 medals in Rio. Our medal tally has regressed and so has our system, but look deeper and you’ll find that our sportspersons have made significant strides in Rio despite the structural bottlenecks.
First, Indian sport has significantly increased its width in Rio, with several Indian athletes for the first time appearing among the top 10-20 in disciplines we have not had a presence in for decades. Dipa Karmakar’s awe-inspiring Produnova and her fourth place in the vault event was the gymnastic equivalent of USA beating India at Test cricket by an innings, and Lalita Babar’s creditable 10th finish in the steeplechase can only be appreciated if we remember that no Indian woman has reached the finals of an Olympics athletics event since P T Usha in 1984 — and that was in a field curtailed by the Soviet boycott.
This has happened despite no visible increase in sporting facilities. Karmakar’s physio was not allowed to accompany her to Rio and flown in only when she qualified for the finals, athlete Dutee Chand flew the 36 hours to Rio economy class while sports officials flew business class, and rower Dattu Bhokalan from drought-hit Talegaon who reached the quarter-finals in sculls says he’d “never seen so much water” in his life till he joined the Army in 2012.
Second, as sports writer Deepak Narayan points out, in Beijing eight years ago three Indian athletes reached the medal rounds and all three won medals. In London, 11 made it to medal rounds and six won medals. In Rio, though only seven reached a medal round (not counting men’s wrestling), three fell just short of bronze — Abhinav Bindra, Dipa Karmakar, and Sania Mirza with Rohan Bopanna. Among our three traditionally strong disciplines, the shooters were below par but boxing and wrestling suffered from atrocious politicking. Vikas Krishan, who lost in the quarters is right in saying Indian boxers have had few chances to compete outside the country since 2012 when the world boxing body suspended the Indian federation for manipulating elections. This is one reason why only three Indian boxers qualified for Rio, as opposed to eight in London.
Third, Olympic medals are a consequence not of population but access to facilities. Sports minister Vijay Goel told the Rajya Sabha on July 26, 2016 that his ministry spent Rs 49.2 crore ($7.3 million) on India’s Rio athletes (including Rs 25 crore under Target Olympics Podium (TOP) scheme), apart from another 49.2 million ($7.1 million) spent on 67 sports federations since 2012. This is nothing compared to the £350 million spent for Rio 2016 by the UK which has gone from an Olympics also-ran to No. 2 position, $340 million by Australia or $139 million by Canada.
Dipa Karmakar, for example, only received Rs 2 lakh under the TOP scheme compared to UK gymnastics, which alone received £14.6 million, built 1,300 gymnastic clubs for under-12 year olds and went on to win seven medals in Rio.
For a country with less individual medals in a century than Michael Phelps alone, for 118 athletes to qualify for Rio in so many new disciplines and to make inroads despite a terrible system is evidence that something new is happening in Indian sport.